In January of 1958, three months after Sputnik triggered an educational panic in America much like today’s angst about the global talent race, a 14-year-old boy from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn made headlines: Bobby Fischer became the youngest U.S. champion in a cerebral sport long associated with genius—and long dominated by the Russians. The game, of course, was chess, and 15 years later—during his antic showdown with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972—Fischer became, of all things, America’s best-known sports celebrity. For the football nation, heretofore bored by the slow-moving board game and generally ambivalent about super-braininess, Fischer (“the greatest natural player in history”) had become an emblematic figure: proof that innate talent will triumph in America, even—or especially—without Soviet-style systematic, elite, professionalized training. It didn’t hurt that Fischer, with his fabulous suits and snits—even the way he snatched up an opponent’s pieces—had a rock star’s gift for upstart drama.
It’s a whole different ball—I guess I should say chess—game now than when Fischer was growing up, due in no small part to Bobby himself. His triumphs and the prize money he demanded helped transform what had been considered an obsession of “shadowy, unhappy, unreal-looking men” (as H.G. Wells put it) into an alluring form of mental recreation in the 1970s. Chess clubs surged, then faded again when Fischer failed to resurface after his disappearance. But by the late 1980s, chess had acquired cachet as a cutting-edge youthful extracurricular pursuit and began to infiltrate high-priced private schools and inner-city public schools. In the early 1990s, the successful film version of Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fred Waitzkin’s memoir about his chess-prodigy son, Josh, confirmed that the “sport of thinking” was on the cultural map for kids and parents. Just last month a record number of players—1,448—showed up for the 2007 National High School Chess Championship in Kansas City. The top group was especially strong. In the lead were two international masters, Alex Lenderman and Salvijus Bercys. They are members of the championship chess team at Edward R. Murrow High School, a couple of miles from Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn—and along with their teammates and coach, a math teacher named Eliot Weiss, they are also the stars of Michael Weinreb’s new book, The Kings of New York,an account of a mercurial year spent with the (mostly) boys and their boards.
In one sense, what has happened over the past 35 years could be described as the domestication of chess: the transformation of an abstruse game allied with innate brilliance (and madness) into an educational tool for training mental skills and attitudes. The new guise goes against the Fischer image—the temperamental, egocentric high-school dropout who cultivated his American rebel aura. It may even be that the mainstreaming of the game contributed to driving the chess monomaniac underground. (One Fischer fan, a clinical psychologist, speculates in Waitzkin’s book that the famously oppositional figure balked at the chess fad, devoting himself instead to an obsession—anti-Semitism—he could be sure wouldn’t catch on.) In turn, Fischer’s eclipse has inspired a chorus of nostalgia. Weinreb joins Waitzkin and others in lamenting the blow to the chess brand: With Bobby’s sustained star power, the game could have been permanently rescued from the underpaid margins and established as a well-remunerated, publicly venerated career.
Yet getting the overweening Fischer off the stage was also arguably—and ironically—what saved chess from becoming too, well, Russian: a professional, hierarchical, instrumental enterprise aimed at precociously winnowing, honing, and systematically steering hyped young talent toward the rewards not just of expertise but of officially sanctioned status and privilege. (To be sure, the Soviet system wasn’t as well-oiled as lore would have it: Poor Spassky was surrounded by hapless advisers in Reykjavik.) Instead, chess has held onto a certain purity, along with its penury. In an era when sports in the United States are a big business, as well as a fraught element of college admissions, chess offers kids in our overprogrammed youth culture a rare exposure to the real meaning and value of amateurism—the mastery of something for its own sake. Chess isn’t going to earn anybody much of a living, but it can teach kids about learning—though it tells them absolutely nothing about how to apply that to life, or, for that matter, even to school. How is that for liberating?
America’s dedicated boosters of youth chess don’t put it quite that way, of course—certainly not to financial backers, school administrators, teachers, or parents. They’re busy touting the educational benefits of the game largely in terms of classroom success. They invoke an array of studies that correlate chess with improving children’s reading scores, enhancing problem-solving skills, developing critical and creative thinking (as just about any special program that gives kids extra attention has a good chance of doing). But as Weinreb’s on-the-ground reporting reveals, the pitch to the kids themselves isn’t so pedagogically correct: Chess is not a high-GPA goody-goody’s pursuit by any means, nor is it special-ed in disguise, certainly not at progressive Murrow. Like any serious coach, Eliot Weiss isn’t about to pretend that winning is unimportant, and he’s busy wooing good players (whatever their academic records) to his team; many come from a middle school with an especially good chess program, I.S. 318, or from Russian and Eastern European families in which the game got introduced early. But Weiss—eager to exploit the egalitarianism of a game based on accessible rules that presume no prior knowledge—also opens the chess club door wide to beginners; who is going to practice, practice, practice is hard to predict. And he is also humble about predicting how, exactly, the struggles and victories at the board are otherwise likely to help—or hinder—the motley Murrow bunch.
As it happens, this kind of no-nonsense approach to chess, an endeavor usually steeped in the mystique of genius, seems to be scientifically correct. Chess has been called the “Drosophila of cognitive science“: Thanks not least to its precise rating system for levels of expertise, it lends itself to testing theories of thinking and memory (much as the fruit fly’s gestational speed makes it ideal for genetics experiments). The latest research findings argue againstelevating aptitude over effort, or expecting a fierce focus on the game to translate readily into mastery or a sense of purpose beyond the board. Chess expertise, recent studies suggest, is based on laboriously amassing a bigger “store of structured knowledge,” rather than on intrinsically powerful analytic capacities. The more patterns a player internalizes, the more intricate a system of combinations that player can access. At lower levels, that allows a stronger player to run through more possibilities than a weaker one would; at the top, there’s a quantitative to qualitative shift, with grandmasters zeroing in on the best possibilities, rather than reviewing more possibilities faster than an expert would. But if you ask a top player to remember random positions of pieces on a chessboard, rather than situations that might actually arise in master-level play, his powers of recall don’t correlate nearly as well with his skill. In other words, a studiously honed memory for chess combinations doesn’t necessarily transfer to better retention of other material.
The fact that the stars of the Murrow team and the I.S. 318 program aren’t standout students doesn’t keep some coaches from hailing their brilliance at the board—or from prodding them to be more conscientious about their schoolwork, or about visiting the college counselor. But the main goal is to let the game—with its blend of rigid rules and absolutist rankings on the one hand, and its infinite possibilities and competitive allure on the other—do what it is ideally designed to do. It has an allure that motivates kids to do the hard work of honing basic skills and then discovering their own styles, goaded ever onward by a rating system that can show them every increment of improvement. Ruthless standards and dizzying freedom, all in one package: That is a rarity. And it is a recipe for what experts call “effortful study,” or the process of indefatigably tackling ever harder challenges, which many believe is the secret to successfully pursuing excellence in anything. Except, that is, when the fervent focus itself becomes too all-consuming a distraction.
Here chess holds a lesson that can get overlooked in educational rhetoric and on the corporate lecture circuit: The passion that spurs the endless practice required for outstanding performance (Bobby the “natural” in fact pored over books) is not always so different from the snares of obsession. The ordeal of chess mastery can indeed propel a youthful player onward to tireless commitment to honing talent elsewhere in life: Dip into The Art of Learning,a memoir-cum-how-to book by the now 30-year-old Josh Waitzkin, whose arduous journey from chess prodigy to the pursuit of champion-level tai chi prowess sounds at once miraculous and bordering on masochistic. But chess, precisely because the abstract challenges on the board can be so absorbing, can also derail a kid. Listen to Shawn, who’s ranked third on the Murrow team and constantly skips school to play blitz games in the park. In an interview with the New York Times before the high-school championships, the foundering student lashed out at his mentors. “I became addicted to chess. They think they did something for me, but they didn’t. Chess didn’t save my life. They want to make it like I’m a kid from the ghetto and I can play chess and that’s special. Why does it have to be like that? It’s embarrassing.” Though Shawn would doubtless bridle at the suggestion, just such caustic clear-headedness about the limits of his beloved chess may be the best proof of how much he has learned.